More than one year after the government gave away half of all official fishing lots for use as communal fishing grounds by poor fishermen, fishing disputes have declined, but serious problems remain, NGO and government officials say.
As the crucial annual donors meeting begins today, government officials trumpet the establishment of the community fishery system and the drafting of new fishing laws, decrees and master plans.
But the laws are still in limbo, and in many cases even the community fishing system is not being enforced, fishermen say, leading to disputes that sometimes have turned violent.
In December fishermen in a floating village on the Tonle Sap lake set fire to a village fisheries office. Fishermen said that their communal fishing grounds were poor, and that they had to bribe the owners of a private fishing lot to get access. Four were arrested.
Also in December, a commercial fisherman in Lvea Em district, Kandal province, complained that local fishermen were putting their gear too close to his own, a fisheries adviser reported. After local authorities confiscated and burned the local fishermen’s gear, the local fishermen burned the commercial fisherman’s gear in turn.
The local fishermen said that the commercial fisherman had bribed authorities to ignore his illegal gear. They also claimed that their public grounds contained no water during the dry season.
In late 2000, Prime Minister Hun Sen made public the rights to 495,000 hectares of fishing grounds in 12 provinces.
The transfer was intended to defuse tensions between private lot operators and poor fishermen, who said they were forced off their traditional fishing grounds.
Fisheries officials held public hearings at which 217 fishery communities were established. Fishermen pledged to work as watchdogs, reporting illegal fishing to police.
Local fishermen say their livelihoods have improved slightly thanks to use of the public fishing grounds.
But some claim they were given little real input into the location of the grounds.
Generally it was the least valuable fishing grounds, as determined by auction value, that were made public, according to the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, an NGO coalition working on fishing issues.
The lots are often dry for much of the year, undermining efforts to conserve fish stocks.
Poor demarcation of fishing ground boundaries has led to encroachment by commercial operators or fishermen from adjoining areas, FACT officials say.
Enforcement has also proved a problem, and arrests are rare. Sometimes local authorities do not recognize the fishing grounds set up by the Department of Fisheries because it cuts into their own profits from fishing, FACT says.
Chhim Chhoeun, chief of a community fishery in Kompong Chhnang province’s Kork Banteay commune, said illegal fishermen sent to authorities by watchful community fishermen had been released the next day.
Sometimes the community fisheries themselves have been corrupted. Buth Pov of Kompong Tralach district in Kompong Chhnang charged that his fishing community chief leased a portion of the public fishing grounds to a commercial fisherman without informing commune members.
A draft subdecree on community fisheries is due to be reviewed by an interministerial committee this month. FACT officials argue that the law should give fishermen the right to hold illegal fishermen until authorities arrive.
“The people should have some right to seize illegal fishermen on their own fishing grounds,” said FACT official Sim Bunthoeun.
But Nao Thuok, director of the Fisheries Department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said arrests should be left to police.
(Additional reporting by Richard Sine)